Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Originally published 1847
Scholastic, 20th printing, 1962
Genre: Gothic romance, literature
Synopsis & Review: Jane Eyre is a penniless dependent in her Aunt Reed’s home. She is tormented by her cousins, disliked by her aunt, and barely tolerated by the servants, and she is all of ten years old. Through the auspices of a sympathetic outsider, Jane is sent to the Lowood School, a charitable institution for poor girls. Though the school is at first nearly intolerable, a typhus epidemic and subsequent student deaths soon bring to light the maltreatment suffered by the students, ushering in a regime change for the better. Jane spends six years at Lowood as a student, and teaches there another two years before deciding to make her own way in the world.
Upon advertising for a position as governess to young children, she is invited by a Mrs Fairfax to teach at one Thornfield. The situation proves pleasant; Jane has but one student, a French dancer’s by-blow, and Mrs Fairfax is good company. Soon, however, Thornfield’s master Mr Rochester returns, and the sardonic and brooding Byronic hero soon enthralls Jane. Fortunately for her, our heroine, who he often compares to fairyfolk, similarly enchants Mr Rochester. All seems to be going well despite Jane’s misgivings, when Mr Rochester dark secret is uncovered, and Jane flees alone and friendless into the world.
At death’s door from exposure and starvation, a family of siblings, the Riverses, a brother and two sisters takes in Jane. After being nursed back to health, St John Rivers finds her a place teaching a small local school, and Jane begins settling into a quiet life of obscure usefulness. Fortune intervenes, and Jane’s longlost uncle Eyre dies in faraway Madeira, leaving her a large inheritance. This revelation falls in hand with the disclosure that the Riverses are also relatives, being the offspring of her father’s sister. Ecstatic at the prospect of being part of a family for the first time ever, Jane shares out her fortune with the Riverses, and endeavors to live peacefully with them.
St John, admiring Jane’s fortitude and intelligence, demands that she marry him, and accompany him to India as a missionary. She is nearly overwhelmed by the force of his personality, and wishes to please him, but the prospect of a loveless marriage appalls her. She insists that she can only travel with him as a sister, and as they argue, she feels an urgent call to her from a distant place. Feeling that it must be Mr Rochester, of whom she has heard nothing since her leave-taking, Jane hurries to Thornfield, only to find it in ruins. She fears the worst, but soon learns that he now resides as a small manor called Ferndean, though he is now grievously injured. Upon her arrival, Jane finds Mr Rochester as devoted to her as ever, though more so now that their positions are reversed and he is a dependent, while her independent means for the first time match her personality. And, they marry.
I haven’t been writing full synopses for fear of spoiling a book for some, but I felt that Jane Eyre has been around so long, and must be familiar to so many, that there is little reason to not know the story. By now it really is a part of our cultural fabric, being one of the most popular romantic stories in English language literature (fourth in a 2007 British survey; Wuthering Heights came in first). It is also for many one of the first novels to come to mind when thinking of a Gothic novel, and has inspired many other writers, even spawning related novels such as Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Lin Haire-Sargeant’s H (which is also related to Wuthering Heights).
I first read Jane Eyre probably in about sixth or seventh grade, I think the former due to a teacher’s stamp in it, and have reread it a dozen times since. It appealed to me far more than Wuthering Heights, which I initially disliked, loathing the hateful protagonist lovers. Jane however, is an intelligent girl who rebels against injustice, whether real or perceived (at Gateshead and Lowood), much as any young child would like envision themselves doing. As a character, she sometimes seems a bit stiff or odd, even cold, but that is not simply a modern perception, for she is remarked upon as such at several points in the novel. It is more that she is very self-contained, having learned young to keep herself from being vulnerable to others due to her upbringing. There are times when she is openly affectionate, and they are more to be treasured for her reserve. Particularly appealing is Jane’s own strong sense of identity which will not allow her to completely bend to another’s will, though she is susceptible to such influence, as in the cases of Rochester and St John Rivers, both of whom attempt to impose their own vision of a wife or woman onto Jane. She resists this, wishing to remain her own person, to keep herself, rather than to completely subjugate herself to Rivers’ ideal or Rochester’s fantasy. I think it is that strength of character and purpose that continues to endear Jane to readers even a century and a half later.
I wonder sometimes whether Jane Eyre is so popular because of the ending, which seems a bit unrealistic, fantastical, and well, naive. It is comforting, however, because the bad are punished, the good rewarded, and everyone lives out their lives more or less as they would wish to. For me, it is still a go-to book when I need soothing. I do not think the less of it for the ending, however.
Cover: Pretty terrible. It’s completely generic, and could be any Gothic. I’ve also been thinking lately about the setting, and I tend to think it’s a bit earlier than conventionally depicted, due in part to the headgear favored by the ladies at Mr Rochester’s house party. Also, what is up with the weirdly guido-like coloring on that girl?
“I wish I had only offered you a sovereign instead of ten pounds. Give me back nine pounds, Jane; I have a use for it.”
“And so have I, sir,” I returned, putting my hands and my purse behind me. “I could not spare the money on any account.”
“Little niggard!” said he, “refusing me a pecuniary request! Give me five pounds, Jane.”
“Not five shillings, sir; nor five pence.”
“Just let me look at the cash.”
“No, sir; you are not to be trusted.”
27 April – 30 April